By Maria Exall
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of Scotland’s Catholic church, has made an unprecedented threat to Catholic politicians: support the church’s position on abortion or face excommunication. While Catholic intervention on the issue of abortion is par for the course, such a direct intervention is a new departure. What has caused this outbreak of “political Catholicism”?
The intervention of the Catholic church in England into the debate on the Sexual Orientation Regulations, the so-called gay adoption row, should be seen as part of the same phenomenon of a more politically aggressive church. Indeed the fall out from the Labour government’s implementation of the regulations (without the exemption lobbied for by religious organisations) has had an effect in the Scottish elections. The Scottish Catholic church used Labour’s support for limited LGBT equality as a reason for advising the faithful to reject what is perceived as the traditional party for many Scottish Catholics. Furthermore, they pointed out that the SNP agreed with the Catholic view. (Whether they actually did is another matter, but they were certainly willing to pander to the church...)
Keith O’Brien’s colleague Mario Conti, bishop of Glasgow, supported the firefighters who refused to attend a Gay Pride march in Glasgow on the grounds that if offended their “religious conscience”. So homophobia and anti-abortion have both been used by the church to promote their reactionary agenda.
Undoubtedly, the upsurge in religious-politicisation and activism among British Muslims following 9/11 and the war in Iraq has encouraged the Catholic church to enter the political arena. But it is not just a matter of multi-faith competition. There is an attempt to shift the consensus on the line delineating the religious and the secular in British society. Underlying this is an ideological justification of cultural relativism. In the gay adoption row, church apologists argued that “Catholics” had a particular position because of certain “cultural” values and these could not challenged.
The logical extension of this position is that religious affiliation must come above political views and democratic representation.
But the church is in fact not “relativist” at all; it wants to carve out space for its own absolute values. It is cover for straightforwardly reactionary positions on issues like women's and LGBT liberation.
Our response should be to challenge misogyny and homophobia whatever their source. We should work with progressive religious as well as secular organisations that fight against oppression. Church leaders do not always speak on behalf of their “flock”. While the church campaigned against adoption rights for LGBT people, many “rank-and-file” Catholics looked on in dismay. Similarly, “Catholics for a Free Choice” do exist.
We should challenge the reactionary power of religion as a political force by standing up for women’s and LGBT liberation and allying, where appropriate, with progressives inside religious organisations.